Siracusa, Italy – On a hot, still day during Ramadan, two boys in this Sicilian city sit on a wall, looking across the stunning waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Odds are that they were on a boat in those very waters less than a week ago, as most of the people who go through the reception centre for migrants at Siracusa don’t stay for longer than that.
In the first six months of 2014, 63,884 people have arrived in Italy from ships sailing from Libya, flooding a system that is not funded to deal with them. Most are from African countries, especially Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, and Ghana.
“We now have 280 [migrants], but are funded by the prefecture for 200,” said Giampiero Parrinello, the director of a converted school in the city.
Italy has asked the European Union for help in dealing with the influx of migrants and the EU, in turn, has criticised the conditions of some of the centres, saying Italy has broken EU rules on granting asylum.
The Italian government is opening new centres to house the growing number of migrants, a decision welcomed by rights groups. But for now, the country’s “first-tier reception centres” – which have the capacity to handle 7,000 people – are housing roughly 10,000. As a result, some migrants are being transferred out of Sicily to “second-tier” immigrant processing centres on Italy’s mainland, according to Fabiana Giuliani, a legal consultant for the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Still, underfunded or cramped as they might be, primary reception centres like the one at Siracusa manage somehow, providing a bed, food, clothing, and showers. There’s also some light recreation: a foosball table, a football field and on some nights, a giant, outdoor screen on which to project football games.
Parrinello told Al Jazeera that those who arrive here have been screened at the port for medical conditions, although medics are also available to diagnose and either treat or transport them to nearby hospitals.
No money, no language – just hope
Most of those who come here are male, around 20 years old, and travelling alone. Families and unaccompanied minors come too, but they are housed elsewhere, said Parrinello, pointing to other parts of the compound.
While there have been photos of migrants in the media, Italian authorities are extremely sensitive to exposing them to the media, and forbid any direct photos of their faces once they are at the reception centres.
Most of the men do not want to speak to the media, and many politely excused themselves when they saw someone with a camera entering a room.
Some of the migrants simply abscond from the reception centres, which are open. Others have family waiting for them – a fact that seems to both relieve and baffle Parrinello, considering the risks of getting on an unsafe boat with little if any money, no phone, and no knowledge of the Italian language. “Can you believe when some of these boys get off the boat their families are at the port, waiting for them?”
But not all have that kind of luxury. Fifteen-year-old Haseen Mohamed Musa, an Egyptian, has been living on the streets for most of the two months he’s been in Italy. He has looked for work in both Catania and Palermo. He is registered as an asylum seeker, but although he is a minor, he is under no supervision and hangs out near a ferry terminal in Catania.
“I came here looking for a future,” he said. So far, he says he hasn’t been able to manage to find much other than “unkind people in Palermo and little food”.
On a wing and a prayer
Data from the EU’s Fraud Risk Analysis Network (FRAN) indicates that there was a 288 percent increase between 2012 and 2013 in the number of illegal border crossings detected along this route.
Death is common due to the low quality of the vessels, the overcrowding and the cruel nature of the sea. Hundreds die each year in shipwrecks – and, in some gruesome cases, suffocate to death in packed ships.
According to the UNHCR, 600 people are believed to have gone missing or died in 2013. In the first six months of 2014, 500 people have already died or gone missing at sea.
A UNHCR spokesperson cautioned, “These numbers are compiled using accounts of survivors, family members and media reports. Actual numbers may be significantly higher.”
But Italy, with help from the EU, is trying to minimise the number of deaths at sea. Italian boats patrol the waters and EU countries carry out flights – zig-zagging over the waters, looking for migrant boats.
The flights – organised by Frontex, the European border agency – take place daily, the planes outfitted with emergency rafts if they spot anyone adrift in the sea. Frontex runs two operations in Italy – one south of Lampedusa, the other along the coasts of Apulia and Calabria.
“In both operations, Frontex coordinates and co-finances the deployment of eight patrol boats, two helicopters, two planes and several second-line officers to provide additional assistance to the Italian authorities,” said Frontex media officer Izabella Cooper.
“Considering the dramatic conditions of the boats which the smugglers put the migrants on – unseaworthy, often rusty, with poor engines, lacking proper navigation systems – our technical means are involved in extensive search and rescue operations aiming at saving lives of the migrants,” said Cooper.
Al Jazeera accompanied one such mission, an Icelandic crew operating a “DASH 8” plane (DHC-8-300) with a crew of four, accompanied by an Italian officer acting as liaison between Frontex and Italian border and customs authorities.
Flying low, at 1,800 metres (the average passenger plane cruises at more than 9,000 metres), the Icelandic coast guard flew over its assigned patch, with two men flying the craft while two others monitored anything that moved in the water.
“Could be a whale, could be a buoy,” said Lieutenant Commander Gunnar Orn Arnarson, pointing to a small gray object on one of the screens in front of him. “See that trail? If it’s heading in an interesting direction, we’ll take a look.”
Should a migrant boat be found, they e-mail an image along with the location to the Italian authorities and await instructions. “We can be asked to stay, and we do until we have to return for fuel reasons. Or they could tell us to leave,” said Arnarson, adding that the Italian military or coast guard respond immediately by sea.
This isn’t a theoretical situation. The crew finds boats fairly regularly in waters around Spain, Greece and here, near southern Italy.
“We found a boat a few days ago when we were flying south of Lampedusa,” said Arnarson, who has been part of these missions for four years now.
“There were a lot of people on board there, so we are helping them get assistance as soon as possible. I’m glad every time we find some people and when we assist them as much as we can,” he added.
Arnarson said he’s not concerned with not finding boats. He considers his mission to consist of one thing only: “Saving lives.”
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz